The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde
By: Tom Gunning
What is “cinema of attraction?”
Quoting Gunning, the term “cinema of attraction” can be defined as: "a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator." This meaning that cinema could be created, not necessarily as an entertainment function but more along the lines that a film would attract its spectators by presenting something exclusive, something unique. Gunning also states, “According to Eisenstein, theater should consist of a montage of such attractions, creating a relation to the spectator entirely different from his absorption in ‘illusory imitativeness.’ I pick up this term partly to underscore the relation to the spectator that this later avant-garde practice shares with early cinema: of exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorption.”
When and Why did “cinema of attraction” come about?
During 1907 to around 1913 of cinematic history, cinema was one makeover after another. Filmmakers of that era were attempting to create unique images of extreme potential, images that went far beyond the act of reproducing everyday life. This exact curiosity of early filmmakers brought about Tom Gunning’s concept of “cinema of attraction.”
As Gunning says, early modernist’s writing about cinema often flowed in similar ways: they were curiously fascinated by the possibilities of cinema but overly frustrated with the direction it began to flow. As time went on, cinema began to take on the custom blueprints of other art forms, such as literature.
Gunning also explains that early filmmakers such as Méliès, Smith and Porter have been studied as contributors of film history because of their storytelling. He says, “Although such approaches are not totally misguided, they are one sided, and potentially distort both the work of these filmmakers and the actual forces shaping cinema before 1906.” He explains that there has always been hullabaloo between non-narrative and narrative films, however, Gunning compares both Lumière’s and Méliès’ films, along with other filmmakers of 1906, by stating that they all have “a common basis,” which he describes as “cinema of attraction.” Gunning declares, “one can unite them in a conception that sees cinema less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power (whether the realistic illusion of motion offered to the first audiences by Lumière, or the magical illusion concocted by Méliès), and exoticism.” With this said, the act of “cinema of attraction” does not disappear with a narrative domination, rather, it takes on an undercover approach.
The Implications of ATTRACTION
Cinema after 1906, according to Gunning, pushed towards the structure of linear narrative, and away from the immediacy of the "spectacular image". He states, "Film [after 1906] clearly took the legitimate theater as its model" (68). This adoption of narrative remade film as a medium of tradition and emulation, placing movies alongside the stage in the artistic establishment. To the avant-garde artistic circles of the time, cinema was exciting because of its radical "newness"- its ability to produce spectacle with immediacy and impact. When Gunning notes that, "It was precisely the exhibitionist quality of turn-of-the-century popular art that made it attractive to the avante-garde," he links early cinema's refusal of narrative to a refusal of the previous foundations of artistic communication. To the progressive artists of the early 20th century, film had the ability to produce "exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorbtion" (66), and as such, had the ability to affect audiences with power, radical images in motion. Linear narrative structure was numbingly familiar to the audiences of the day, meaning that narrative film was intrinsically familiar and comfortable. Gunning's observation that film was potentially robbed of its immediate effectiveness due to the emphasis of narrative over spectacle implies that audiences would be less affected by narrative cinema, and thus more accepting of the events taking place within the structure of traditional narrative. Politically, the implications of the insulating narrative extend to the exploitation of familiar linearity to promote quiet acceptance, rather than the inevitable questioning and recontextualization provoked by the "cinema of attraction".
Films Gunning Relates “cinema of attraction” to:
How We Got Into Pictures (1979)
The Bride Retires (France, 1902)
Voyage dans la lune (1902)
The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)
Hooligan in Jail (1903)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Photographing a Female Crook (1904)
Ben Hur (1924)
Un Chien andalou (1928)
ReadThe Cinema of Attractionby Tom Gunning
The title of Wanda Strauven's collection refers to a 1986 article by Tom Gunning exploring early film style and its reception. When 'The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde' was collected in the volume Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative (1990), its title acquired a qualifying letter: 'The Cinema of Attractions '. Gunning's piece has defined the study of cinematic form and exhibition practices from the mid-1890s to the mid-1910s; in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded it is reprinted alongside other forays into this field of cinema studies from the mid-1980s which include autobiographical and introductory pieces and almost twenty essays by prominent film scholars re-evaluating the concept of the 'cinema of attractions' and its enduring utility for twenty-first-century film scholarship.
The cinema of attractions presents its own 'constructedness' to the spectator, emphasising its status as a product of technological apparatus. Instead of letting audiences peep into a closed fictional world unfolding before their eyes, where characters act in ignorance of their spectators, in the cinema of attractions the people who find themselves in front of rolling cameras peep back, disrupting the walls of their diegetic world. Early cinema was one entertainment outlet among many as the historical period of modernity gathered pace towards the end of the nineteenth century. It slotted into a menu of popular attractions available to the inhabitants of North America and Western Europe, such as amusement park rides, optical toys, vaudeville theatre and exhibitions of new machinery. As espoused by Walter Benjamin among others, one of the constitutive elements of modernity is shock. Rapid technological and cultural shifts created an environment in which the citizens of the West were exposed to the shocks of the new: industrialisation, railways, urbanisation and electrification. They came to crave popular entertainments that reproduced these jolts, and early cinema exploited and pleasured the distraction of its audiences by providing the attractions of stop tricks, reverse motion and fast motion, to name but three.
So why, in the rubric of this collection's title, has Gunning's article been Reloaded? Gunning's essay notes some kind of return to a cinema of attractions in 1970s and 1980s Hollywood: 'recent spectacle cinema has reaffirmed its roots [End Page 127] in stimulus and carnival rides, in what might be called the Spielberg–Lucas– Coppola cinema of effects' (387). These three directors suggest the alternative titles Wanda Strauven could have selected for this volume. Why not The Cinema of Attractions Redux, which would give a flavour of the way this book republishes key 1980s scholarship into cinema (of attraction) studies, along with several essays revising and extending Gunning's original concept? Why not The Cinema of Attractions Remastered, suggesting that Gunning's study of early cinema has been repackaged in a manner befitting the digital age and the tastes (and nostalgia) of contemporary cinema audiences? The cover image of Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) poised in mid air supplements the clues recurring through the book: Reloaded has been chosen because it points to The Matrix trilogy (Andy and Larry Wachowski US/Australia 1999–2003), which provides several examples of a contemporary cinema of attractions for many of the writers here. Those moments in the first Matrix film when the narrative seems to be suspended (along with the main characters) in bullet time may constitute a return to the pleasures of early cinema's shock and spectacle. The film's technological transformation of one's 'natural' experience of space and time is paraded for the audience's amusement and acknowledgement. Fittingly, the bullet-time effect in The Matrix recalls the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge in the 1880s, when a leaping figure was captured on six different cameras from six different angles simultaneously, as Eivind Røssaak explains in this collection (323). Other examples of the dialogue between the conception of early film as a cinema of attractions and the durability of that term to explain the experience of contemporary film include Vivian Sobchack's exploration of the sensual slow motion...